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This was Grandad Mikhail, as the boys called him.
He had the benevolent face of St. Nicholas as depicted
in the simple village icons, the clear, bright eyes of a
child and a. soft, thin, floating beard which was quite
silvery. He wrapped Alexei in an old sheepskin coat,
which was all in multi-coloured patches, and as he lifted
and rolled his light emaciated body, he kept on saying
with naive surprise:
"Poor, poor lad! Why, you're wasted away to nothing!
Heavens, you're nothing but a skeleton! The things this
war is doing to people! It's hard!"
As carefully as if he were handling a new-born babe
he laid Alexei on the sleigh, tied^him down with a rope,
thought for a moment, took off his coat, rolled it up and
put it under Alexei's head. Then, going in front of the
sleigh, he harnessed himself to a small horse collar made
of sackcloth, and handing a trace to each of the boys, he
said: "God be with us!" And the three of them hauled
the sleigh over the thawing snow, which clung to the
runners, creaked, and gave way under the feet.
During the next two or three days Alexei felt as though
he were enveloped in a dense, hot mist, through which
he could obtain only a hazy picture of what was
going on. Reality mingled with delirious fantasy, and
it was only a considerable time later that he was
able to piece together the actual events in their proper
The fugitives lived in the depths of the virgin forest.
Their dugouts, roofed with pine branches, were still
covered with snow and were hardly discernible. The
smoke that rose from them seemed to come straight from
the ground. The day Alexei arrived was windless and
raw, and the smoke clung to the moss and wound among
the trees, so that it seemed to Alexei that the place was
surrounded by a dying forest fire.
All the inhabitants — mainly women and children and
a few old^ men—on learning that Mikhail was bringing
a Soviet airman who had got here nobody knew how, and
who, Fedka had told them, looked like "a real skeleton",